The French Royal Family’s Failed Escape Attempt
June 1791 [*]
It cannot be denied, that the situation in which the King was placed at this critical juncture led him into some errors, which can only be justified or palliated by the motives which actuated him. So eager was he to recover his liberty, that he listened not, as he should have done, to the counsels of prudence . . .
Their Majesties left the Thuilleries secretly in the night between the 20th and 21st of June, about one o’clock.
The Queen and Madame Elizabeth saw M. de la Fayette crossing the square of the Carouzel as they entered it. Two common coaches being ready to receive the Royal Family upon the quay of the Theatius, they left Paris without any obstacle , and took the road to Montmedy by Chalons-sur-Marne. . . .
Having arrived at Bondé [Bondy] without accident, the Royal Family proceeded to Chalons-sur-Marne with three Gardes-du-Corps dressed as couriers. They were detained two hours at the little town of Montmirail, in consequence of some repairs that were necessary to the coach. This delay proved extremely fatal, as the King did not think of sending notice of it to the next post, where he was expected, nor had he the precaution to send a courier to the Marquis de Bouillé a few hours before his departure, as the Marquis had advised. The Royal Family arrived at Chalons about half-past three o’clock. Here the post-master knew the King, who did not take sufficient pains to conceal himself, but, being a royalist, he was silent.
His Majesty thought all the danger was over when he left Chalons, as he expected to meet with the numerous detachments that were to have been stationed on the road all the way to Montmedy; but unfortunately the two officers who commanded at Pont-Somevelle, calculating that the King should have arrived there at four o’clock, concluded from his not appearing, that some obstacle must have prevented his departure, and they quitted their post at five o’clock, notwithstanding the express orders they had from de Bouillé of remaining there the whole day. His Majesty, arrived at Pont-Somevelle half and hour after, continued his progress without meeting a single soldier; and still, with unaccountable remissness, neglected the precaution of sending forward one of his guards, to announce his approach to the different posts.
At half past seven, the Royal Family arrived at St. Menehould, 156 miles from Paris, where they stopped to changed horses. A detachment of dragoons was stationed there under an officer, who attempted to draw out his men, but he was prevented by the people and the national guard. The King imprudently put his head out of the carriage to make some enquiries relative to the road, and it was at that fatal moment he was recognized by Drouet, the son of the postmaster of the town, from the resemblance his countenance bore to the engraving on the assignats; his suspicions having been previously excited, that the carriage contained suspected persons, by having a detachment of troops as an escort. On approaching nearer, he though he could discern the Queen, and was further strengthened in his opinion, by hearing the orders given for taking the road to Varennes.
Drouet, however, remained silent for the present, lest he should excite a false alarm, but mounting his horse, he set off by a cross road for Varennes, before the carriages.
Having arrived at his destination, he took immediate steps to prevent the King’s further progress, by acquainting the mayor and the commandant of the national guard with his suspicions, who immediately caused the bridge and streets to be barricaded. The commandant of the national guard then approached the carriages, which had arrived a short time before, and were detained by some trifling dispute between the postillions and the postmaster. He demanded of the travellers, who they were, and whither they were going?
The Queen replied, that they were in haste, and gave her passport to the two guards of honour, who alighted and went into the inn. It was drawn up in the name of the Baroness de Korff and retinue. Some observed, that it should suffice; but not being signed by the president of the National Assembly, as well as the King, the majority determined that the travellers should not depart till the next day, and they were immediately conducted to the house of the Procureur of the Commune. His Majesty, now conceiving that all further attempts at concealment were useless, exclaimed, “Behold your King! behold my wife and children! We conjure you to treat us with that respect which the French have always manifested towards their Kings.” About 15,000 men were assembled by this time, armed with various weapons. Some hussars who arrived soon after, sword in hand, attempted to approach his Majesty; but they were quickly disarmed, and the unfortunate captives were ordered to be closely guarded, until instructions should arrive from the capital.
During these proceedings in the capital [about how to go about retrieving the royal family and moving forward], the situation of the Royal Captives was truly distressing. They were kept in confinement a short time at the house of M. Sausse, attorney of the commune of Varennes, and then set out on their return to Paris, under an escort of 6000 national guards, or patriots. M. de Bouillé marched with the regiment Royal Allemande to rescue the Royal Family, as soon as he was informed of their arrest; but their Majesties had departed two hours before his arrival, and he then quitted Varennes in despair of being able to afford them any succor. . . .
They [the Royal Family] were met at Epernay by the commissioners of the Assembly, who informed his Majesty of the object of their mission. They passed the night of the 24th at Dormans, the next at Meaux, and on the 26th, at seven o’clock in the evening, arrived in the capital.
All honours were refused them as they passed along the streets. The national guards at the different posts did not present their arms.
[*] John James M’Gregor, History of the French Revolution and of the Wars Resulting from that Memorable Event, vol. 1 (Waterford 1816), 423–40. Illustrations (in order): Post Karte Durch ganz Deutschland, ed. J. Walch (Augsburg 1795); Albert Vast, Sur le Chemin de Varennes (Paris 1907), plate v.1; Henry Sutherland Edwards, Old and New Paris: Its History, its People and its Places, vol. 1 (London 1893), 213; Arrestation du roi et de la famille royale à Varennes (Paris 1791–95), Bibliothèque nationale de France, De Vinck, 3955; Edwards, 216; Sutherland vi.2 (also Jean Prieur, Retour de Varennes arrivée de Louis XVI à Paris le 25 juin 1791 [ca. 1793–95]; Bibliothèque nationale de France, De Vinck, 3973). Back.
Translation © 2020 Doug Stott